Council gang rides again

The races for city council aren’t getting nearly as much attention as the mayor’s race. Presumably that’s because they really aren’t races.

Half of the eight city-council districts are up for re-election on June 3, and not one of the incumbents has an opponent.

Incumbents have almost always had the upper hand in these elections, usually with enough political clout and money to scare off any challengers. But this year is particularly lopsided. “I’ve been talking to a lot of people about this,” said Kevin McCarty, who is running unopposed for the Council’s 6th District seat. “I even asked the city clerk about it. I think in the last 50 years, this has never happened.”

So, when three of the four incumbents appeared at the League of Women Voters/Metro Cable candidates’ forum on May 3, the power of incumbency dominated the discussion.

McCarty, along with the District 4 representative Rob Fong and District 8’s Bonnie Pannell, all graciously showed up to answer questions put to them by a whip-smart panel of reporters and academics, including the Bee’s Terri Hardy and CSUS Professor John Syer. Oh, and yours truly was there, too. Each incumbent council member candidate got to brag on what they’d accomplished over the last four years, each answered questions about public safety, transportation and other issues facing the city. Each, that is, except for Sandy Sheedy, who didn’t show, perhaps taking a page from the Kevin Johnson campaign, which she supports.

But about half of the forum was given over to the health of Sacramento’s democracy—and how to improve it. Starting with the question, “Why are you all getting a free ride this election?”

“I’m not sure if it’s because of the good work we’re doing or if it says something about the state of democracy. I’d like to think it was the first one,” McCarty answered.

Fong and Pannell mostly agreed with that, though Fong allowed that, “Most of the people who come down to City Hall have a personal stake in the outcome. I don’t know who’s watching at home. I think just my mom.”

All agreed that competitive elections are better than non-competitive elections, and each seemed relieved to be in the second category.

So why, Bites asked, have you each raised a ton of money when you have no challengers? After all, the city has a law on the books allowing for public financing of city elections. Each could have accepted campaign spending limits, used money from the city-election fund, and spent less time dialing for dollars or collecting checks at swank fundraising parties. (See “Money for nothing,” February 21, 2008, for a discussion of the long, sad life of Sacramento’s clean-election laws.)

McCarty said he supports public financing—for other candidates—and said he didn’t want to be caught off guard by a well-funded opponent. “Like any good candidate, or any good Boy Scout, you need to be prepared,” explained McCarty.

Pannell too said she supports public-financing laws, but added she thinks, “they need to be tweaked.” Fong went a little further: “I support them. But I don’t support them as they are written, because I don’t think they are effective. If they were effective, people would be taking advantage of them, and you wouldn’t see the power of incumbency.”

So then what’s the answer, slim?

“If we really want healthy turnover at the city level, maybe we should be thinking about term limits,” Fong said.

Hmm … that’s maybe not a bad idea. Rob, why don’t you get on that? In fact, Bites would love to see all of these candidates make electoral reform a goal for the next term. You know, really put some teeth in the rules that are supposed to foster more competitive elections and more political participation.

But don’t hold your breath. After all, as Fong succinctly put it, “The laws are written by the people who are sitting in office; think about that.”